• Due to COVID-19, face masks are required or recommended in many public places by governments around the world.
  • But some are concerned they can take some of the empathy out of doctor-patient relationships.
  • One company has designed a transparent, breathable mask to try to solve the problem.

Face masks, it seems, will be part of our lives for the foreseeable future. They’re compulsory on public transport in many places, and in some countries, like Italy and Spain, a majority of people report always wearing one when outside of their home. And, of course, they’ve been crucial for medical professionals.

But, health benefits aside, there are concerns about some of the possible side-effects of this new reality, ranging from the impact on child development for young people who can’t see adults’ facial expressions to nurses reporting that earing a mask increases patients’ fears about treatment and the problems caused for people who lip-read.

Spurred on by these issues, one company had a clear idea for a solution: the Hello Mask.

How often people are wearing face masks.
How often people are wearing face masks.
Image: Statista

Switzerland’s Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) and Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Empa) started researching how to make surgical masks transparent after receiving feedback from medics treating Ebola outbreaks in 2015.

“One of them told me how frustrated and heartbroken she was about having to care for desperately ill patients without being able to show empathy because of the surgical mask – not even a simple smile,” said Dr Klaus Schönenberger, Director of EPFL’s EssentialTech Center in a YouTube video to announce the product.

Empa had already developed a transparent fabric, but the challenge was to make it breathable and capable of filtering out viruses and bacteria.

After two years’ research, the scientists adopted a technique called electro-spinning, which enabled them to use nanofibres less than 1,000th of the width of human hair to produce a transparent surgical mask.

The mask is disposable, biodegradable and made from biomass material. The research centres have founded a start-up company – which has raised $1 million in seed funding – to help put their invention into production. It is expected to be available from next year – with the medical profession front of the queue.

Transparent face mask.
Now you see me: Dr Schönenberger demonstrates the new face mask fabric.
Image: EMPA

Communication barrier

Other companies have been working to create transparent face masks. Allysa Dittmar, the co-founder of one of those firms, US mask maker Clear Mask, is deaf, and she explained in a TV interview the fear and disorientation people can feel when confronted by clinicians wearing facemasks.

“I remember being wheeled into the operating room and all the doctors and nurses were wearing standard surgical masks. I could not understand anything that was going on. I had no ability to communicate whatsoever. I didn’t even feel human,” she said.

coronavirus, health, COVID19, pandemic

What is the World Economic Forum doing to manage emerging risks from COVID-19?

The first global pandemic in more than 100 years, COVID-19 has spread throughout the world at an unprecedented speed. At the time of writing, 4.5 million cases have been confirmed and more than 300,000 people have died due to the virus.

As countries seek to recover, some of the more long-term economic, business, environmental, societal and technological challenges and opportunities are just beginning to become visible.

To help all stakeholders – communities, governments, businesses and individuals understand the emerging risks and follow-on effects generated by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with Marsh and McLennan and Zurich Insurance Group, has launched its COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications - a companion for decision-makers, building on the Forum’s annual Global Risks Report.

The report reveals that the economic impact of COVID-19 is dominating companies’ risks perceptions.

Companies are invited to join the Forum’s work to help manage the identified emerging risks of COVID-19 across industries to shape a better future. Read the full COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications report here, and our impact story with further information.

Official advice

Many countries have rules about wearing masks in public places, including France and the UK, where they are compulsory on public transport.

The World Health Organization recommends medical face masks for health workers dealing with COVID-19 patients, and non-medical masks for the general public in areas with widespread transmission and where physical distancing is difficult, such as on public transport.

It adds masks should only ever be used as part of a comprehensive strategy for tackling the virus that includes tracking, isolating, testing and caring for cases and tracing contacts.